BEMIDJI — For 36 years, Arthur “Art” Lee captivated students in the history classroom and served as an invaluable resource for faculty at Bemidji State University.
With his tenure spanning from 1959 to 1995, his impact was not forgotten when he retired.
“You get him in a classroom, he was the most disciplined person you could ever expect to have and of course, one of the most beloved,” retired music professor Fulton Gallagher recalled about working alongside Lee. “He was the face of Bemidji State professors. None better.”
Lee passed away on Saturday, Sept. 24 at 91 years old, leaving behind his wife Judy; three children Scott, Kristen and Karin; and five grandchildren Molly, Kristian, Eirik, Madeline and Micah.
He also left behind a lasting legacy from his years of teaching.
Following his passing, a post from the BSU Alumni and Foundation Facebook page flooded with comments from former students reminiscing about memories and stories from Lee’s classroom.
“He was one of the most interesting, engaging professors,” John Hamrin commented regarding a class he took with Lee covering history from 1945 to the present. “I took a class of his that I didn’t need to graduate but took because he was so gifted in bringing history to life. Truly a Bemidji treasure.”
Several comments touched on music Lee would play while students entered his class, which would reflect the historical period they were studying at the time.
“I never liked history class until I had Dr. Lee,” Brenda Bard commented. “The roaring 20s! We would enter the classroom to period music playing on the phonograph and he would regale us with the stories behind celebrities like F. Scott Fitzgerald or Fatty Arbuckle. Stories I have never forgotten.”
Holding an immersive history class led to his classes commonly having wait lists. In tandem with BSU’s centennial, Lee explained in a 2018 interview his approach to teaching that didn’t include simply standing behind a lectern and reading notes.
“Don’t use notes, don’t stand behind a lectern, tell jokes, laugh (and) do dumb things,” Lee detailed in the interview.
Along with his unconventional approach, his classes still proved challenging.
“His classes were not easy. I still remember his 200-question multiple choice final with the circular answer sheet that he said was cheat-proof,” Bill Hawkins recalled. “BSU would not be what it is today without his massive contributions. I was privileged to have him as a professor.”
Gallagher credited Lee as one of the most popular lecturers at BSU having received a Lecturer of the Year Award several times throughout his tenure. The former Hagg-Sauer Hall building had a lecture hall named in his honor, and the new Hagg-Sauer completed in 2020 includes a custom end table with a bronze plaque on display.
Lee spoke in a 2020 interview inside the new Hagg-Sauer building noting several former students who would approach him and say they were in his classes.
“What is astounding is to meet people today who say ‘I was in your class.’ They’re retired, they’re bald-headed, they can’t hear. Other than that, I kind of remember them because I’m one of them too,” Lee left off lightheartedly.
Outside of the classroom, Gallagher recalled Lee as a tenor singer who would occasionally sing in Gallagher’s office as part of a barbershop quartet.
“(The quartet) would come to my office to let me hear them so I could give them direction on how they were doing, which required hardly any direction,” Gallagher added. “I’m not a barbershop enthusiast, but they were quite good.”
Lee earned his doctorate in U.S. History from the University of North Dakota and his dissertation resulted in his book “University in the Pines,” considered the definitive history of BSU in tandem with its 75th anniversary in 1994.
Another one of his books, “The Lutefisk Ghetto: Life in a Norwegian-American town,” was published in 1978 and is an account of life in Scandinavia, Wis., at the end of World War II.
“I asked Art what he liked about lutefisk and he said ‘the butter,’” Gallagher recalled with a laugh.
However, according to his obituary, Lee would consider being a husband, father and grandfather as his greatest accomplishment.
“He enjoyed patiently and endlessly swinging his young grandchildren on the swing set in the backyard,” the obituary said. “He loved quietly and he loved deeply, and he never failed to tell his family how proud he was of them.”
Remembering Lee as not just a colleague, but also a good friend, Gallagher spoke about Lee’s influence throughout the entire BSU campus.
“He was greater than his department,” Gallagher said. “His aura shined over the whole faculty and university. One of the greatest people I ever met.”
Lee’s family invites the public to donate to the Arthur O. Lee History and Education Scholarship fund to support BSU students with demonstrated financial need, who are pursuing a history or education degree and have a minimum 3.0 grade point average.
Donations can be made at www.bsualumni.org or can be mailed to the BSU Alumni Foundation.
A celebration of life service will be held at 11 a.m. on Friday, Oct. 21, at First Lutheran Church in Bemidji.